5.2.3. Melchior Hoffman, Jan Matthys and the Munsterite theocracy

5.2.3. Melchior Hoffman, Jan Matthys and the Münsterite theocracy

The Reformation can be likened to a revolution and Protestants to revolutionaries. The early Protestants were in fact Catholics who were dissatisfied with the status of their religion and had the courage to question the legitimacy of the Catholic Church. The purpose of their protest was to improve and order the theological universe. But, despite their intention, as in the case of any revolution, the immediate effect was the spreading of chaos. And chaos, of any kind, is always an extraordinary opportunity for delirious minds and insane ideas to come to surface, sometimes having unforeseeable effects. One such case was Melchior Hoffman, an illiterate furrier from the region of Swabia. But, unlike Müntzer, who had voluntarily led his people to death in the Battle of Frankenhausen, Hoffman involuntarily contributed to a carnage in the city of Münster.

At first, in 1522, Hoffman converted to Lutheranism and became an itinerant preacher. But later he discovered Anabaptism, which fascinated him. To make matters worse, he believed that the persecutions he was subjected to were repaid by God with dreams, visions and signs. Thus, after eight years of preaching, persecutions and so-called revelations, Hoffman came to a very clear conception about the world: the end was approaching fast, the Reformation was the final battle between good and evil, Anabaptism was the outpouring of the spirit in the last days and God had great plans with his person. Even Joachimite influences can be distinguished in his writings, because he divided the history of the Church into three periods: the period of the apostles, the period of popes, and the period of the Reformation, started with Jan Hus. This was the time when the spirit of God was being poured upon people and the two witnesses of the Apocalypse revealed themselves to challenge the Antichrist. Parousia was going to be preceded by a revival of the apostolic Christianity through the work and the influence of two people: the Swiss reformer Huldrych Zwingli and Hoffman himself – the two witnesses of the Apocalypse. Also, Jesus Christ would not descend on the Mount of Olives as it is prophesied in the Acts of the Apostles, but above the city of Strasbourg, on the Easter of 1533, where he would settle his throne.463

Hoffman compared the battle between Catholicism and Protestantism to the clenching between two titans. Protestants, on the one hand, were the saints who had awoken in the Lord and were represented, protected and guided by the two witnesses of God. Catholics, on the other hand, were the sinners who were still sleeping in sin, being further deceived by the Papacy – the “little horn” from Daniel and the Beast from Revelation. The two witnesses of God, symbolically named “Elijah” and “Enoch,” had to reveal themselves and to “awaken” many people to the true faith, heavily striking the Papacy. But on the papal chair would be the Antichrist who, with the help of the ecclesiastical institution, would martyrize the two witnesses and would start a persecution against all Protestants. This period of torment was the great tribulation described in Matthew 24. This would last 42 months, a period in which the world would experience catastrophes, earthquakes, floods, fire from the sky, Turkish invasion and the persecution of the saints. But after three years and a half Christ would come on the clouds of heaven and would strike the Antichrist and his subjects.464

Everywhere he went Hoffman was perceived as a madman, fanatic or dangerous revolutionary. At Strasbourg he gathered an extremist group of Anabaptists and preached non-resistance, the rejection of vows and the separation of church and state. His theories had a weak social echo, but the few followers he had gained were downright fanatical: they sold their properties, forgave their debtors and gave their money and goods to those in need.465 But after the Easter of 1533 passed without Parousia, Hoffman was accused of being a false prophet and was abjured by his own followers. This prophetic failure split the group in two.

The first group, initially led by Jan Volkerts Trypmaker and Jacob van Campen, was called the “Peace Wing.” The later leaders of the Peace Wing were Obbe Philips, his brother Dirk Philips, and in 1536 Menno Simons, after whose name these Anabaptists became known as “Mennonites.” They promoted non-resistance, pacifism and the preaching of the Anabaptist doctrine always through the power of the word and never through the power of the sword.466 By contrast, the second group of Hoffmanites emerged as a violent reaction to the attacks of the Lutherans and Catholics. Led by Jan Matthys and Jan van Leyden, they adopted a warlike attitude in relation to the outside society and promoted the idea of answering to sword with the sword. Parousia had to be triggered through the purification of mankind. Matthys, a simple baker from Amsterdam, saw himself as a prophet of the last days and adopted an extreme postmillenarism: Christ did not reveal himself because the necessary conditions of his return had not been created. And these conditions had to be satisfied at any cost, including through bloodshed.467

In the 16th century the nations of Europe were ruled through the feudal and monarchical systems, based on social inequality. The Anabaptists, driven by the belief that the Millennium was imminent and they were the divine tools of universal reform, attempted to change the existing order by building utopian theocracies. The idea was not exactly new, but the Reformation has the merit of greatly developing this social vision. Nevertheless, over time theocracies proved to be rather a reason for suppressing people by other people, and not godly utopias as they were initially conceived.

At the end of 1533 Jan van Leyden moved to the German city of Münster together with a handful of Anabaptists because, as he confessed a couple of years later, he had heard that there were inspired preachers. In Münster the situation was tense because the Protestant extremist Bernhard Rothmann was fighting for power with the Catholic bishop Franz von Waldeck.468 Van Leyden made a detailed letter about the situation of the place and suggested the gathering of the group in Münster. The news made Matthys experience a revelation through which it was shown to him that Münster was going to be the New Jerusalem and Christ would descend from heaven on the Easter Day of the year 1534.469

On January 5, 1534, Matthys, together with a crowd of several hundred supporters, entered Münster and introduced the baptism of adults. Rothmann was taken by surprise by this unexpected wave, but, alongside more than 1,000 adults, he accepted to be rebaptized, even though for some the baptism was done even for the third time. In the following days an increasing number of Anabaptists entered the city, forming a majority. The bishop Franz von Waldeck fled the city in order to avoid being killed, a fact that boosted the extremist Bernhard Knipperdolling to the position of mayor. Matthys proclaimed himself Enoch, the second witness of the Apocalypse after Hoffman, who was Elijah. The city was renamed “New Jerusalem,” all the books – except the Bible – were burned, private property was abolished, the local church was emptied of its content and the objects of worship were burned in public. Matthys wanted to execute all the non-Anabaptists, but Knipperdolling convinced him to allow them a period of one week to convert or to leave.

According to Matthys, the cleansing of mankind and the establishment of the Kingdom of God was about to be a violent process. But God would be on the side of Anabaptists, would protect them and help them pass all the obstacles until the coming of the Messiah, after which the army of New Jerusalem would purify the entire world of infidels. Rothmann, in the position of the most important theological voice of the place, advanced a historical Joachimite theory adapted to the requirements of the time: ... (This text is incomplete. If you wish to read it in full, please purchase the book)

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